Alaska Railroad’s little Davenport steam engine traveled widely across North America
The little engine in the drawing is a Davenport 18-ton 0-4-0 ST steam locomotive. (The engine nomenclature refers to 0 leading wheels, 4 drive wheels, and 0 trailing wheels; with the ST indicating that water was carried in a “saddle tank” atop the locomotive’s boiler.
During this engine’s career, it was a bit of a long-distance traveler. An article by A.M. Bouche on the AlaskaRails.org website states that the locomotive was built in 1907 in Davenport, Iowa, as a narrow-gauge locomotive (a 3-foot distance between the rails). The engine was acquired new by the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) — the U.S. commission that oversaw construction of the Panama Canal. Numbered Engine 802 by the ICC, it was shipped to Panama where it and three other Davenport locomotives worked on the Miraflores Locks — the locks closest to the Pacific side of the canal. Bouche also states that at least a dozen narrow-gauge locomotives were used during construction of the canal’s three sets of locks: Miraflores, Gatun, and Pedro Miguel.
The canal was completed in 1914, and in 1917, No. 802, along with other narrow-gauge equipment, was transferred to the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC), which was the federal entity responsible for building the Alaska Railroad (ARR). The AEC re-numbered the Davenport locomotive as engine No. 6.
Although the ARR was a standard-gauge railway (4-feet, 81/2-inch distance between the rails), narrow-gauge equipment was used by the AEC at various construction and industrial sites. For instance, narrow-gauge equipment was used for hauling coal at the AEC’s Matanuska Valley coal mines, and during winter at Nenana for transporting freight and supplies across the frozen Tanana River (on tracks temporarily laid across the ice).
According to railroad historian Pat Durand, nobody is sure how many narrow-gauge locomotives were used by the AEC during construction of the Alaska Railroad. Only some of those locomotives appeared in official records, and much of the narrow-gauge equipment never made it onto the railway’s equipment rosters. Because of this it is difficult to say where No. 6 was used during construction of the railway.
However, by 1924 No. 6 resided at Anchorage’s railroad yard. In 1930 it was converted to standard gauge and began life anew as a switcher in the Anchorage yard, moving larger locomotives and railroad cars around. After diesel locomotives came into vogue No. 6 was retired and shunted into storage.
When the ARR began streamliner service between Anchorage and Fairbanks in 1947, No. 6 was pulled out of retirement, refurbished, and re-numbered as Honorary No. 1. At the Oct. 18, 1947, inaugural ceremony for the streamliner service, the newly-rechristened No. 1 appeared next to the diesel streamliner locomotive, No. 1050, providing a contrast between old and new.
For the next two years the Anchorage Kiwanis Club, in cooperation with the ARR, used No. 1 as an attraction during Anchorage’s annual Fur Rendezvous Winter Festival. During Rondy, railroad tracks were temporarily laid down Fifth Avenue between C and L Streets, and No. 1, nicknamed the “moose gooser,” chugged back and forth along the tracks, providing free rides to school-aged children.
In 1952 No. 1 was put on permanent display in front of the Anchorage railroad depot at 411 W. First Ave., adjacent to the railroad yards. By the 1990s the Davenport locomotive was in poor condition, and an Alaska Railroad engineer, Bob Yost, spearheaded a restoration of the engine. Work was done in the ARR’s Anchorage shop, and included fabrication of a new cab and water tank. After restoration the engine was returned to its pedestal in front of the Anchorage depot, where it is still on display.
- “Additional steam locomotive information.” Pat Durand. From “John’s Alaska Railroad Page,” . 2004
- “Alaska Railroad No. 1 Davenport Locomotive.” Pat Durand. From John’s Alaska Railroad Page, 2005
- “Alaska Railroad Standard Gauge #5 Research.” Pat Durand. From John’s Alaska Railroad Page, no date
- “The ICC Locomotive.” A.M. Bouche. From John’s Alaska Railroad Page, no date